O’Sullivan, Janes, and Crosbie: Modern Celtic Artists

Art has been with me since childhood. Some of my earliest memories involve me sitting at the kitchen table with a fistful of crayons, or glancing at my grandmother’s watercolor sketches–she was an amateur artist herself. In elementary school, I drew all over my assignments instead of actually completing them, and claimed I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. While since then all that has changed, my love for art has not. That said, I confess I know next to nothing about Celtic art or Celtic artists, and decided to rectify that by doing a bit of research and writing a blog post on my findings.

When I say ‘Celtic art’, I’m not talking about the traditional, iconic high-crosses of Ireland, or even the intricate scabbards and torcs done in the La Tène style; rather, I’m referring to painters and sculptors from the last couple of centuries who can, at the very least, trace their ancestries to the Celtic fringe. Evidently, there are many such artists, and more than I could ever hope to detail in a blog post; so I’ve chosen only a few to share.

Celtic High Cross

There is first the Irish painter Sean O’Sullivan, who was born in Dublin in 1906 and died in 1964. Glancing through O’Sullivan’s work, it is clear he is primarily a portrait painter, with a tendency towards bright colors and simplistic, slightly cartoonish renderings of reality. Yet sometimes his pieces are no more than sketches, cross hatches and smudges, really, which work together to create brief impressions of his subjects. Some of O’Sullivan’s portraits include those of Douglas Hyde, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce.

Portrait of James Joyce by O'Sullivan

Portrait of James Joyce by O’Sullivan


Portrait of Douglas Hyde, an Irish academic and scholar of the Irish language

Portrait of Douglas Hyde, an Irish academic and scholar of the Irish language

Alfred Janes was a Welsh artist, born in 1911, and, like O’Sullivan, he was interested in portraits, painting pictures of Dylan Thomas and other close friends. That said, he did not confine himself to one style, and, especially later in his life, also experimented with abstract art. His portraits appear a bit cartoonish, but are still stylistically  different from O’Sullivan’s; his people possess strong, sturdy bodies, thick forearms, and wide eyes gone dark and sharp with intensity. Janes favors dark, muted colors, although his pieces have occasional bright sparks, such as the yellow tie in his portrait of Dylan Thomas, or the yellow-white pricks of light on the apples in ‘Boy with Apples’. This type of palette, while established in his early paintings, bleeds over into his abstract pieces as well. 

Portrait of Dylan Thomas


Boy with Apples

Boy with Apples

William Crosbie, the third and final artist I will discuss, was born to Scottish parents in China, although his family returned to Scotland in 1926. Artistically, his style is even more varied than Janes’, and his subjects range from still-lifes, to landscapes, to portraits, to abstract pieces. His abstract pieces suggest Picasso as an influence (see ‘Playing to my Friends’, a more tame example of this), although he was evidently capable of realism as well.  Many of his pieces make use of vibrant colors, although some are done completely in black and white. In sum, it is difficult to attribute one style to Crosbie. 

Self Portrait

Playing to My Friends

Playing to My Friends

I can’t say this brief bit of research has allowed me much insight into modern Celtic art–but I did note that, stylistically, these three artists are making use of techniques employed by other, non-Celtic artists as well. There is nothing that unites or sets them apart, nothing that screams ‘Celtic!’ besides, occasionally, the subject-matter. In the context of the poetry we have been reading, this is especially interesting, considering many of the poems are heavily influenced by Celtic culture and a sense of nationalism, and display these sentiments overtly in language (for example, the use of Celtic words, or the invocation of Celtic myths). The apparent neutrality of these artists presents a striking contrast to this. That said, it is entirely possible O’Sullivan, Janes, and Crosbie felt the influence of their respective Celtic ancestries and are actually conveying this in their artwork; I just might not be learned enough to pick up on these influences.

And just for fun, I’ve included a couple of my own pieces 🙂

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Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 8.09.03 PM

Websites used:

1. “Kooywood Gallery, Museum Place, Cardiff.” Oriel Kooywood Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2017. <www.kooywoodgallery.com/display.php?aid=249&gt;.

2. “BBC – Wales – Arts – Alfred Janes.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2017. <www.bbc.co.uk/wales/arts/sites/alfred-janes/&gt;.

3. “Sean O’Sullivan (Irish, 1906 – 1964).” Mutual Art. ARTFIXdaily, 20 July 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2017. <www.mutualart.com/Artist/Sean-O-Sullivan/695468CEEDE08090&gt;.

4. “William Crosbie.” The Scottish Gallery, n.d. Web. <www.scottish-gallery.co.uk/artist/william_crosbie&gt;.

5. “Seán O’Sullivan (painter).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Mar. 2017. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%A1n_O%27Sullivan_(painter)&gt;.

A Reflection on Family and My Own Irish Origins

If first asked, I would describe my family as something dilute. I picture ink drops in water, which, over time, have spread green and purple fingers out far from one another. What marks us as the same is not location, or even physical appearance, but rather an innate, shared stubbornness, a mile-wide independent streak that has, oft as not, left us a bit in trouble and a bit isolated. This self-containedness, combined with the fact that I have grown up with a Polish-Canadian stepmother, has often made me feel separated from my own geographical origins. While I have known people who speak proudly of their heritage, who instinctively lay claim to the countries of their ancestors, I have rarely reflected on my own identity in the context of nationhood. For me, family has always been something behavioral and (sometimes) genetic–that is, a unit defined by learned and mimicked behaviors, similar personalities, and similar traits. Even my concept of place–childhood haunts, for example, or vacation spots–has centered around the people I met there. Yet this class, and especially the way physical Ireland, its landscapes, its ruins, its traditions, factors into language, and, by extension, heritage, has made me reflect on my own identity in the context of nationhood. I realize that my Irish origins, just as they colored Yeats’s poetry, have also left threads running through my own life, and that I am perhaps not as independent of nationhood as I first thought.

There is, most obviously, my nickname and its Gaelic roots. Rory, generally considered a male name, means “red king”, and is an anglicization of the Gaelic name “Ruaidhr,” the Irish name “Ruar” and the Scottish name “Ruaraidh”. This is no accident; my grandmother on my father’s side was Irish,  and I believe the nickname, for all its masculinity, fits the tomboyish aspects of my personality. Moreover, though I gave it little thought at the time, my dad has told me I am “Irish” in my moods, making reference to my tendency to be morose, reflective, and (more than slightly) cynical. Though undoubtedly this statement is an oversimplification of what it means to be Irish, I think it does relate to the poetry we have been reading, as often the lines seem to echo with distant sorrow, with melancholy. Arguably, these are the same emotions that can be evoked by the stark and bare beauty of Ireland’s stony shores.

I recall now, too, that as a child I loved watching Riverdance on VCR. For those unfamiliar with the show, it consists mainly of Irish folk music and dance, although the music, besides featuring an Irish folk band, also makes use of electric bass, drums, and horns. While Riverdance was far from the only thing I watched (Spongebob and documentaries on marine biology also made regular appearances), there is a part of me that jumps–if ridiculously–to associate the pull of Riverdance with some innate Irishness. It is that same part of me that would like to somehow equate coastal Maine, one of my favorite vacation spots, with coastal Ireland, even though, as someone who has never actually been to Ireland, I will be the first to acknowledge this is an overly romanticized, overly trite notion. Yet what drives me to make this connection is that the Maine I am thinking of is not the tourist-trapped lobster-state, but rather the fog-swathed, wide-skied coast, whose nights are edged with salt, the low croon of foghorns and the memory of unpeopled rocks. This is, in my mind, somehow similar to the Ireland I have heard described to me, although I would have to visit to truly find out.

Morning in Acadia, ME


A foggy day at Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

In high school, James Joyce’s Dubliners was one of my favorite books. I found it to be darkly humorous, and the challenge of decoding his language, of culling meaning from such resistant and tricky prose, was one that in and of itself made me grin. Yet there was also some underlying poignancy, something watchful, still, and serious, in Joyce’s writing that pulled at my heart. Here I think especially of an excerpt from Joyce’s short story, “The Dead”:

A few taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly on the Bog of Allen and, further westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. 

Although as readers we are viewing this scene directly through one of Joyce’s characters, and are thus, arguably, more displaced from it than if the narration were third-person omniscient, the pure poetics still elicit chills instead of the wry, dry satisfaction of mental chess. Thus, even as Dubliners pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to become a more analytical reader, it also touched me in ways that were more emotional than intellectual. Though secretly I am not a very critical reader, and enjoy most books, Dubliners remains one of my favorites.

With all this said, I am still aware that my connections to my own Irishness are tenuous, and perhaps mostly contrived or coincidental. A cynic could observe that The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and Hamlet left as deep an impact on me as Dubliners, that I have spent most of my life ignorant of my nick name’s Irish roots, or that I never met my Irish grandmother–and he would be right. I am not trying to claim that my own Irish blood has played an especially formative role in my upbringing; rather, I am trying to mark the places where my genetic origins have intersected with my life. This line of thought, besides being convenient fodder for a class blog post, or an interesting intellectual exercise, has made me reflect that my sense of family is neither as dilute nor as unmoored and nationless as perhaps I first thought. I won’t argue that this has made me feel closer to my family, or even closer to my own origins; but perhaps it does allow me to climb a little more securely into the poetry we are reading, to recognize and validate my own relationship to these poems.

There you are. I can say to them. There you are. There are small parts of you, your notions of melancholy, your raspy notes and stone shores, that run into me.


1. www.apogeephoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/aug2013/Juergen_photos/Misty-Acadia-National-Park-Seacoast.jpg